And so the finish line is in sight for the UK general election 2010 – an election race notable for many things, but certainly not the role of social media. This will have come as a surprise to those that had predicted that this would be the 'social media election', where candidates and parties would ruthlessly exploit the outreach potential of Twitter and Facebook to get their messages across to the great undecided electorate.
After all, much was made of the role of social media in Barack Obama’s successful campaign. Throughout 2007 and 2008, Obama took grassroots campaigning into the online world via a series of Web 2.0 initiatives, from launching unique campaign profiles for each state he campaigned in on MySpace to conducting Q&A sessions on LinkedIn. Boasting millions of friends on MySpace and Facebook, Obama’s online campaigning earned him the tag ‘the first social media President’.
But on the other side of the pond, social media really hasn’t been so significant in the election race. That’s not to say it didn’t have some impact of course. It brought down a couple of political candidates as a result of their ill-considered and puerile Tweets. Twitter also made it all the easier to disseminate BigotGate to the widest possible audience – as of course did YouTube. And that’s not to mention the trending topics on Twitter that told the election race from the electorate’s point of view, most notably #nickcleggsfault in response to the media’s intense scrutiny of the Liberal Democrat candidate.
But what we didn’t see was the political parties taking the initiative in the social space to lead the online debate in the same way that Obama did. There have been some innovations of note, however. The Conservatives, for instance, ran several Google AdWords campaigns for phrases including ‘Gordon Brown’ and ‘leaders debate results’ so that sponsored links to the Conservative Party’s official page and David Cameron’s official YouTube channel appear alongside search results.
However, the Conservatives cashgordon.com social media campaign - designed to highlight Labour’s ties to the Unite union and encourage users to tweet and Facebook articles – proved to be something of an embarrassment, when it was revealed that site’s template came from a rightwing US group, and then was hacked to redirect traffic to the Labour Party site. The site was eventually taken down until extra security measures were put in place.
Elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats attempted to tap into the power of viral by posting a series of amusing YouTube videos to accompany the launch of its www.labservative.com website, highlighting how election of either of the major parties would merely lead to ‘more of the same’ for Britain.
Labour also dipped its toe in the Web 2.0 world with its own videos, including an entertaining summary of the Labour manifesto.
There was also micro-blogging activity courtesy of Twitter Tsar MP Kerry McCarthy, although this rather spectacularly came to a head last week when McCarthy revealed postal vote figures online in a potential breach of election laws. She is now being investigated by police.
And while the effectiveness of social initiatives were fairly limited, the fanbase of the candidates themselves was also discouragingly low. Nick Clegg was the only one of the candidates with a personal Twitter account of any note, and he only notched up some 22,000 followers, while on Facebook he had attracted over 50,000 fans. Small beer compared to Obama’s three-quarters of a million followers on Twitter and 8.2m Facebook fans.
Party shortcomings in promoting social media presence were highlighted recently in a study by marketing firm Return Path and Response Consulting. They found that while most of the major UK Parties were promoting social media presence on the homepages of their websites – with the exception of Labour and the SNP – only the Conservatives and the BNP were incorporating social media links into their email messages, thereby missing a simple way to grow their online communities and seize greater control of the online debate.
On her blog, Margaret Farmakis, senior director of Response Consulting wrote: "88% of the parties we studied had a social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and MySpace were the most popular), yet only 75% promoted that presence on their website and only 25% promoted these efforts in their email messages. The Conservatives and the British National Party (BNP) consistently provided links to view YouTube clips, and the BNP featured Twitter and Facebook icons linking to their pages in one of the email messages received during the study period.
"The primary benefit of having a social media presence is the ability to reach a wide range of like-minded people quickly and without much effort - social media is viral by nature - and to engage with these followers and fans on a personal, one-to-one level. These inherent benefits complement any marketer's brand building strategy, but would be particularly useful for a political party looking to spread the word about where it stands on social and economic issues that affect constituents and inspire people to cast a vote."
So overall it will come as little surprise to learn that no one party has seized control of the online debate. Social media monitoring research by Alterian reveals that Gordon Brown has a higher influence among the older members of the public (23% of over 50’s) but doesn’t speak directly to younger members through micro blogging sites (only 14%). Clegg however, has received the highest percentage of mentions through micro blogging with 33% while David Cameron receives 28%. This is a result of Clegg’s aforementioned personal Twitter feed, which while low in overall terms is still fairly large when compared to the overall number of those following each party’s Twitter handles, with the Lib Dems with 17,670 followers compared to the Conservatives 28,771.
"This is becoming one of the most tense and widely discussed elections in recent years," said David Eldridge, Alterian CEO. "Following Obama’s successful campaign last year where he effectively utilised social media to listen and engage with his voters, our own leaders are now taking note of the strength of social media, although it is still very much in its infancy."
Indeed, in reality this has been the television election. The three leadership debates have had a far greater effect on the voting intentions of the electorate than any elaborately planned and co-ordinated social media strategy drawn up in a Soho workshop by men in black roll neck jumpers and media specs. The most notable impact was on the political fortunes of Nick Clegg who went from being 'the other guy' at the start of the first debate to the UK version of Barack Obama just by coming across well on television and having been media trained more effectively than the other two.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by social media's limited role in this election. A new survey by The IT Job Board revealed that whilst political parties are attracting younger voters using social networking and online media sites, the majority of those questioned are relying on the mainstream media to follow the election campaign. 70% of respondents said all political parties have become more web savvy and used Twitter and Facebook effectively to engage a younger audience. However, whilst they advocate a greater use of these sites by the parties, 68% of respondents said they prefer to read newspapers and online news and follow the debates on TV.
One thing is for sure – the UK’s first ‘social media prime minister’ won’t be crowned at this election.